User-generated content (UGC) is the hallmark of Web 2.0. Indeed, many people take UGC as a synonym for Web 2.0. At the same time, there's no shortage of UGC skeptics who question its quality and integrity in spite of its proving successful in business.
But now a new question plagues the Web's business leaders: With the age of Web 2.0 passing, are the business models built upon UGC still sustainable? To answer that question, we need to revisit some fundamentals of UGC.
Web 2.0 is, at its heart, a social Web on which users are able to produce enough buzz via UGC to gain the attention of other Web users and, subsequently, "network" with one another.
"Networking" is not the same as "consuming," however. A common misconception of Web 2.0 is that people produce UGC for others to consume. By contrast, UGC is a medium that introduces the content producer to the public -- i.e, "This guy often produces something interesting/illuminating/fascinating; therefore, we should follow/link/become friends with him."
The primary motive behind creating content is not for consuming, but to gain an impression from the public or a niche community for the end-purpose of networking. The UGC contributors on today's Web generally gain nothing except attention. Content is not king, attention is. This is the secret to a successful Web 2.0 business and is why some such businesses succeed and others fail.
In turn, then, a successful Web 2.0 business is not the one that works hard to improve the efficiency of UGC consumption. By contrast, it is the one that leverages the opportunity for successful interpersonal networking.
But this type of attention-first, content-second, UGC-grounded Web-2.0 business model is unlikely to sustain through the Web's evolution. The critical argument against such a model is it doesn't produce enough value. Attention's value is shallow because it is a secondary productive force that helps to produce capital but doesn't produce capital itself. The greatest contribution of Web 2.0 is that it liberates humans from geographic restrictions. Its limitation, however, is that Web 2.0 does not provide ways for the liberated Web users to produce exchangeable commercial value. Web 2.0 itself cannot overcome this limitation. To resolve it, we look forward to the next evolutionary stage of the Web.
In the next stage, user generated content will evolve to become user generated assets. The primary issue for Web 3.0 businesses will then be how to help users build solid, consumable assets by generating content. This Web will be more of a marketplace than a platform or a social community. As a consequence, however, the percentage of free UGC will drop, and the percentage of paid UGC (or user generated assets) will emerge and rise. The innovative, value-generating mind will finally be rewarded. Through this new phase, we may step out of this present economic crisis and enter a new age of strong growth.
— Yihong Ding, Semantic Web researcher and blogger